HONG KONG -- The highest official of the Roman Catholic Church in China used the 17th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre yesterday to strongly criticize the Chinese government and call on it to hold a full and open review of the killings.
The criticism by the official, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, is the latest sign that the Vatican may not be willing to compromise on human rights to establish diplomatic relations with mainland China.
Pope Benedict XVI has pursued the normalization of ties with China for the past year. But those efforts have been on hold since the government-approved church on the mainland installed two bishops a month ago without the Vatican's approval.
Wearing the red and white robes he was given when Pope Benedict appointed him a cardinal in March, Zen went from celebrating Mass at the cathedral here to a prayer meeting on a concrete-floored, indoor basketball court next door. There he defended the students who died in the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, whom the Beijing government has labeled counterrevolutionaries seeking to overthrow the state.
"All they asked for was a clean government - is that a sin?" Zen said. "And what they wished for was a strong nation - is that a sin? All we're doing is pursuing their aspirations."
But Zen questioned whether the new prosperity in China was enough to maintain the Communist Party's legitimacy. He pointed to coal mine disasters and consumer safety scandals in recent years that have embarrassed China.
"Yes, the economy has improved and some people have earned lots of money, but corruption abounds, the gap in wealth is huge, mines keep swallowing workers, and fake milk powder and fake medicines are flooding the market - is this considered an improvement?" he said. "If they had listened to the kind advice of the students and workers, would today's country be a better country?"
Liu Bainian, the secretary general of the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in Beijing, expressed surprise that Zen had spoken out. "According to God's holy teachings, what belongs to Caesar should be left with Caesar, and what belongs to God should be left with God," he said in a telephone interview.
Pope Benedict's decision to elevate Zen this spring has antagonized China and raised his visibility considerably. As late as Saturday afternoon, diocese officials here did not know if the Vatican would allow him to fly here yesterday morning from Rome and attend the afternoon prayer meeting.
Mainland officials have occasionally suggested that Zen makes intemperate remarks on the spur of the moment. But the cardinal read from a prepared text at the prayer meeting, and his aides distributed copies. He did not take questions.
Liu, a longtime rival of Zen, questioned whether the cardinal's remarks would disrupt contacts between the Vatican and Beijing. "I believe the Vatican will not support him," Liu said.
The Vatican has long kept silent regarding Zen's statements about China. But his elevation to cardinal has been widely viewed as a sign of Benedict's support. A Vatican spokesman could not be reached yesterday for comment.
The Roman Catholic Church in Hong Kong has commemorated each anniversary of the Tiananmen Square killings since 1990. Zen, who became the bishop of Hong Kong in 1996 and took over full control of the diocese in September 2002, has been especially vocal at the anniversaries since 2003, the year Hong Kong's own democracy movement enjoyed a brief moment of influence.
Hong Kong has been an autonomous region of China since 1997, when Britain returned it to China.
About 120 people attended the prayer meeting, which was organized with little notice. After sunset, a throng joined the annual Tiananmen Square candlelight vigil here. Zen did not attend the vigil.